Heather F.

Chris, Vin and Nathan topped one of the mesas. The grassy plains just out side of Four Corners lay less than a half mile away. The river that cut just out side of town to the west flowed at its low summer levels. The spring highs had over flowed the banks months before.

Larabee yanked roughly on the Black's reins swinging the gelding's head to the right. The animal chomped and held the bit more than ready to spill over the side in great leaps.

"Chris hold up," Nathan's sharp words snapped the gunslinger's attention to the road winding below them.

Two horses galloped out of town. From this distance they could not make out the riders but the silhouettes spoke volumes. The second rider clung desperately to the saddle. The first horse held two riders. One with long blonde hair.

"Son of a bitch." Larabee ripped his rifle from the scabbard.

"We're too far off Cowboy," Vin's frustration laced the soft observation. Their horses pranced in impatience.

"There's a third rider," Nathan leaned forward in his saddle trying to get a better look at the riders below.

The third rider bolted from the confines of the town. Its rider leaned low over the horse's neck. The horse had itself stretched out. Long legs clipped the ground one hoof at a time. Its head angled out its nose cut the wind with teeth bared. No saddle graced the horse's back, no stirrups secured it's rider's legs or feet.

Tanner pulled is eyeglass from his saddle bags. He focused on the first group winding up the dirt road. They stuck to the stage route. The quickest cleanest road out of town.

"They got Mary...looks like the second rider is hurt."

Chris seethed watching the outlaws, trying to discern which way they intended to head. From this vantage point they could see the whole valley but the steepness of the perch only allowed one trail down. Once they started their descent they would lose their quarry.

"Shit...that's Ezra....behind'imself a rifle nothin' else though." Vin's voice pulled Nathan's eyes toward the third rider.

"He ain't got no shirt on does he?"

Vin cracked a smile, "Nope," Tanner moved the glass down a little, "no shoes either...but he does have pants."

Jackson snorted. Better have pants...ain't gonna treat no rashes down there

Chris nodded once curtly. He narrowed his gaze waiting impatiently for the riders to veer from the trail.

The kidnappers took the East trail. The fools were heading right toward Josiah and the others.

Time to act. Larabee squeezed his legs, leaned forward and gave his Black its head. The Gelding baled over the edge of the mesa as if it could fly. For a few seconds, it's four feet hung suspended in midair. Then the front feet touched ground only moments before back feet slid past front ones. With giant ground swallowing strides the Gelding lunged down the rocky trail. Chris leaned back instinctively taking weight from the horses shoulders. With no fear of falling, with no conscious thought of failing, horse and rider careened down the hill at a maddening clip.

Peso grabbed the bit and followed. The Indian pony felt the ground roll under his feet. With the whites of his eyes blazing and nostrils flaring, Peso followed like a hound from hell. Tanner kept his boot snugly against the horse's ribs.

Jackson took a steadying breath and gave his bay its head. The Healer's horse held no qualms about following the others. It pitched over the side in a fearless state much like his rider. Saddle bags flapped under the jarring punishment, leather strained and twisted. Croupers pulled tight keeping saddles in place as cinches tried to work forward toward the front legs.

The three lawmen urged their mounts for speed. The Black lunged from the path to flat ground. Larabee pulled its head toward the East trail and dug his heels into the horse's side. The Black with a snort of rage dug in and bolted down the empty trail.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah did not bother arguing. There seemed no sense. Buck and JD had refused the luxury of riding in the wagon and jumped to their horses instead. The Big Grey danced and tossed his head. Its massive hind end quivered and tucked itself under its barrel in hope for the order for speed.

The little Bay to his right acted no different. The smaller gelding snorted and shook its head. It tossed its front legs a few inches off the ground slicing the air fighting the rein that held him in check.

The mules quickened into a trot. Their ears whipped forward and backward in time with their front feet. The wagon rattled over the rough trail. Supplies bounced and tipped in the back.

"You boys want to ride on ahead go on," Josiah's voice held a stern tone, warning mule and horses alike. Chaucer and his own gelding tried to run the length of the wagon but their pony lines continued to pull them up short, reminding the two riderless horses they were still tethered to the back of the wagon.

"We're stickin' with you Josiah jist in case," Buck reassured. He then turned his attention to JD, "I'm gonna ride ahead check out the watch our backs."

Dunne started to protest. His swollen eyes prevented him from getting good perspective of the things around them. Hills and mesas rose and fell on all sides of the small group. Though no trees marred their view the undulating landscape itself could camouflage approaching riders.

"Listen JD that damn woman's more devil than human, it would be like her to be sittin out here just waitin' for a chance to strike out at Chris...what better way than to take one of us down," Anger bordering on hatred laced harsh words.

Any argument JD felt quickly fizzled out.

"You can count on me Buck,"

"Always knew I could,"

The grey felt the tension leave the reins. The horse sprang from a walk into a flat out gallop. JD's Bay pirouette in mad attempts to follow. Dunne sat deep in his saddle, communicated through his legs and hands and swung the small bay toward their back trail.

Chunks of wet earth flew into the air in his wake.

+ + + + + + +

The kidnappers wound their way up a pebbled trail. Shod feet dug for purchase as their mad dash slowed from a full out gallop to a canter.

Between looming rocks and clinging sage the horses snaked and twisted their way up the steep narrow trail. The sun only now reached this dark recess. The leader took a nervous gaze over his shoulder. His arms ached from holding the blonde on the saddle. He had half a mind to just dump her and leave her for the buzzards but the mad woman financing this whole plan seemed half crazed if not completely insane. She wanted the news paper woman alive.

The kidnapper snapped a glance over his shoulder as his horse crested the top of the trail.

A third rider closed the distance behind them.

Unable to grab for his rifle and with his partner barely hanging on, the kidnapper urged his blowing mount back into a gallop. Rider and horse raced ahead.

The horse with shaking legs and a racing heart found more speed and raced down the trail.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra leaned forward giving the young horse its head, trusting it to manipulate and pick its way up the trail at the maddening pace set by the kidnappers.

The young gelding covered ground. In an almost effortless gait, it slowly closed the distance. With an air of exhilaration, the half grown gelding felt the thrill of the chase and the urge for speed. It easily tapped the broad expanse of energy found only in the young and spirited.

Standish hung onto the mane with his rein hand. He brought his knees up to the horse's shoulders and gripped for all he was worth.

+ + + + + + +

"Brothers we have company," Josiah's deep voice rang across the flats. He reached behind his seat for his rifle.

Buck swiveled in his saddle and faced to his left. Into the sun.

JD did not hear Josiah's warnings but saw the older man reach for his rifle. The sheriff followed his gaze. JD raised a hand to his brow, just under the brim of his hat and squinted into the sun.

Three riders bore down on them from the West.

+ + + + + + +

Chris swore as he angled his horse up another trail. The gelding slipped his nose nearly banging to the ground. Angry with himself, the big Black lunged ahead trying to make up for lost ground.

+ + + + + + +

The kidnapper saw the wagon. Maybe his 'boss' had moved the meeting point. Maybe she grew impatient and came to meet them. He urged his horse forward milking every bit of strength from the weary animal. The captive in his arm began to stir. Damn

+ + + + + + +

Ezra felt the thrill of the chase. He leaned closer to the young horse's neck he drew his legs further back on its flanks. The wagon and ponied horses never even registered.

In a few yards he would have the outlaws.

+ + + + + + +

The kidnappers nearly cried out in desperation. Two riders barreled down on them from opposite flanking position. Though they did not recognize any of the horses or men the two knew they just sprinted head first into a pit of trouble.

+ + + + + + +

Buck pulled his rifle. With one hand, he swung the lever action sliding a shell into the chamber. With the reins secured between his teeth, he leaned precariously to the side of saddle and squeezed the trigger.

+ + + + + + +

The explosive boom of the rifle did not register with the second rider. He heard nothing, felt nothing but had been flung from his horse a dead man. His body rolled and skipped across arid unforgiving ground.

The first rider heard the blast of the rifle. He clearly saw his own death and it terrified him. He held snugly to the squirming woman hoping to use her for a shield. He barreled down on the flatbed simply because he had no other option. He never saw the iron rungs that arched up over the wagon. From this distance the uncovered wagon appeared no more than a buckboard.

+ + + + + + +

JD pulled his revolver but hesitated. Mary sat precariously in the saddle.

Buck swung the lever action again dispensing the empty cartridge and sliding a second one home. The Big Grey held his pace steady and his course true. Horse and rider had a rhythm seldom seen in others.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's young bay nimbly side stepped the downed body. With bulging eyes and the adrenaline rush of near victory the young horse quickly ate the distance between himself and the runner before him.

Standish urged him forward.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah raised his rifle but kept his finger beside the trigger guide. Mary sat as a shield. Sanchez wondered if the rider realized he had lost. Did he see surrender as an option? Hell did the man even see the wagon?

+ + + + + + +

The kidnapper barreled toward the wagon with a plan. He felt rather than saw the business end of rifles aimed at him. He knew they hesitated because of the baggage sitting before him.

The kidnapper's arms ached. The widow fought with more vigor.

He kept his heels dug viciously into the faltering horse's sides. Wild eyed and breathless the horse bore down on the wagon. With no intentions of going around the buckboard the rider smiled.

A stride or two before the flat bed the kidnapper shoved his victim from the saddle.

His smile faltered when he noticed the buckboard actually was a covered wagon with no canvas. He tried for a brief moment to haul back on the reins but the horse had been commanded to run too far for too long. The command to stop might have registered with the brain but muscles and tendons refused to listen. With conflicting reports and burning chest, the horse leaped from the ground.

The rider, for an insane moment thought perhaps they would fit between thin iron rungs. A stirrup fender along with his leg hooked a rung. A saddle bag became ensared as well.

Momentum shoved them forward but snagged gear misdirected them to the right. The hind quarters swung left balling through a second canvas support. Rear legs smashed through the weathered bed flooring. Front feet clipped the far side of the wagon and the animal sailed sideways saddle and rider pointing toward the ground.

The feet snapped free. Wood buckled and iron bent. Horse, Rider, wagon and driver tumbled to the side in a massive collage of bodies, gear and debris.

Chaucer and Josiah's gelding snapped their pony lines freeing themselves from the chaos erupting before them. The two trotted some distance from the catastrophe.

Mule, horse and human alike let loose with horrendous screams that filled the air with fright and agony. The mules tried to bolt, tried to distance themselves from the mayhem behind them. The wagon lay on its side. The horse kicked itself free and clawed with its front legs to regain its feet. Its rider rolled multiple times head over heels across an unforgiving desert floor.

Josiah saw the impending disaster and tried to bale from the driver's seat. The wagon flipped before he could get clear. Dirt, wood and flashes of light filled his vision. His ears seemed to have stopped working.

JD and Buck spurred their horses onward at the explosive destruction of the wagon.

+ + + + + + +

Standish could not stop in time. He stared horrified as Mary hit the ground like a lead weight. His bay strode right over her just as the kidnapper's horse became entangled in the wagon. Green eyes widened in fear. Good Lord what am I doing? Ezra leaned close to the horse's neck and dug his poulticed heels into the Bay's side. The wagon rolled on its side as the kidnapper flew off to the left. Supplies blew into the air and spewed to the ground like confetti. The underside of the wagon showed exposed axles. Iron rimmed wheels spun of their own accord.

The bay sprang from the ground.

Ezra did not even have time to swear. In a breathless moment, no sound could be heard on the flat. For just a flash of time it seemed as if all stood still...watching horse and rider sail over the toppled wagon. Should have placed a wager...should have found a way to make a profit from this...certainly more than a measly dollar a day....

The young bay, with its bareback rider, stretched its neck over out flung front feet. Its hind legs had tucked themselves neatly and economically up under its body. The young animal launched into the air as if Pegasus might have been his father. It flew over the wagon with effortless grace.

Front feet pounded to the ground. Hind feet over strided as front ones sprung forward again. The juvenile bay expertly collected itself falling back into its gallop.

Time snapped back. Sound crashed through the moment.

Standish bailed from its back. Intentional or not no one would ever know for sure.

The gambler used the forward momentum to hurdle himself off his horse and onto the shoulders of the would be kidnapper.

The outlaw struggled to his feet one moment intending to shoot his way out of this mess. The next instant a brutal force flung him back to the ground with bone cracking intensity. He still clutched his revolver.

Both men slid and bounced across the desert floor. Skin, clothing and brush all gave way to the frictional abuse of sliding bodies. Skin and clothes tore. Dirt dug its way into flesh. The outer layers of skin peeled away unevenly under the guise of friction burns. Sage bent and snapped under the weight and pressure.

Very little dust clouded the fall. Tiny clouds of Buffalo gnats dispersed under the sudden rush of bodies.

Josiah struggled within the confines of the sliding, wrecked wagon. He found his knees up by his jaw, his back arched outward pinching his belly with the buckle of his holster. One shoulder held snug to the ground while the other found itself braced against the back rest of the spring seat. He could not find the sky...only weather beaten grey boards filled his vision.

The mules continued to pull in their harness dragging their fearful burden with them.

Buck stood in his stirrups swung his forearms over the neck of his horse and took aim. For a brief moment in time, the big man hesitated between targets....Down the mules and save Josiah or down the kidnapper and save Standish. Wilmington's finger squeezed the trigger the split decision made for him.

JD fired from the opposite side. His mind working furiously recognized two dangers and needed to decide on one. Balancing in stirrups with his bay galloping hell bent for leather. The young sheriff had gripped his rifle tightly and squeezed the trigger.

Twin rifle reports echoed as one.

The kidnapper struggled to his feet admist a whirl of vertigo still clutching his gun and fighting to bring it up level. He suddenly found himself lifted from the ground and thrown lifelessly backward. He landed spread eagle eyes staring blankly at passing clouds. Blood bubbled from his chest. Two jaggard holes lay mere millimeters apart.

JD hauled back on his Bay. The small gelding slid to a stop nearly sitting on its haunches. The young sheriff bailed off the saddle before the horse skidded to a standstill. Dunne hit the ground running. He headed toward Mary as she struggled to her hands and knees.

Josiah crawled from the wagon. Sanchez gathered the heavy leather reins and used the teams forward momentum to haul him to his feet. He stood on trembling legs and asked them to Whoa. They continued to pull him forward a few steps. He tripped, crashed to the ground, stumbled back to his feet and once again asked the team to stop. He leaned back on his heels, using his weight, strength and calm voice he convinced the team of four to stop.

Buck tossed a leg over the saddle horn and slid from the saddle even as the Big grey moved toward the two bodies. He landed good leg first and succeeded in covering the space of half a pace. His injured leg hit the ground and buckled uselessly under his weight. The large gunslinger crashed shoulder first to the desert floor.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Vin and Nathan rounded the top of the trail just in time to see a colossal wagon wreck. They heard the report of a rifle but knew it to be too loud to have been just one shot.

They spilled down the path urging over worked animals for more speed.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra jumped to his feet ready to continue the pursuit. Unfortunately one moment the ground seemed below his feet and the next he found himself staring up close at a lizard. A forked tongue brushed his nose. Standish lurched again to his feet but this time fell heavily onto his back. He tried to make sense of what he saw but somehow it remained just out of reach. Blue sky sparked and flashed with a dazzling display of lights on the periphery of his vision. He felt himself swirl and spin but instinctively knew he had not moved. Nausea whirled through his stomach out of synch with the spinning the sky.

Josiah continued to calm the mules. The animals worked against one another fighting their harnesses and hitch. They danced a few stuttering steps grinding the wagon forward a few more feet. With persistence and patience born only to certain men, the large preacher pacified the animals. In a few quick well practiced movements based solely on experience he ground tied the team.

Sanchez then turned and surveyed the destruction.

Debris and bodies littered the area.

JD had Mrs. Travis sitting up and talking to her reassuringly. They would be ok until Nathan and the others arrived. Judging by the hell bent speed a trio crossed the desert toward them Sanchez could only surmise that Chris and the others would be upon them in a few minutes.

Sanchez slowly circled and saw Buck struggling gamely to his feet. Wilmington would make it just enough to fall over to the side. The greyish white bandages that circumvented the Ladies' Man lower thigh had darkened with renewed bleeding. As much as Buck tried his leg would not support his weight and his good leg had long ago been sapped of its reserves. He struggled like a floundering foal unwilling to give up.

Buck swore a colorful swath of language as his useless leg once again sent him crashing to the desert floor. Anger born from blind frustration had him pushing himself to his hands and one knee. His shoulders trembled and his stomach rolled with tension, anxiety and over exertion. A deep growl rolled from his throat as he once again struggled to quaking legs.

A firm hand grasped his upper arm. In an almost effortless gesture, the gunslinger found himself nearly lifted freely to his feet. Where the heck was that arm a few seconds ago.

"Let me help you Brother," Josiah's soothing voice swayed Wilmington just as easily as it had the Mules.

"Ezra," Buck kept his teeth clenched against the dizziness and lightheadedness. His vision swam.

Josiah could feel the muscle tremors, could feel the fatigue emanating from the younger gunslinger. He also knew of the determination that pushed Buck. Wilmington would crawl across hot coals to protect one of the others.

"Lets go see what damages our flying circus gambler has wrought on himself," Sanchez easily made out the unmoving form laying splayed out on the ground. Bare feet tangled with sage brush. Raw shoulders and back sat uncaring on pebbly hot ground. The gambler's head rested almost comfortably on a patch of wild grass.

Ezra stared up at the sky trying to convince himself he needed to move. For some reason he could not recall the urgency or exactly why he would want to disturb his repose. The heavens had a decidably crisp blueness about them, a sharp contrast to the thin whispy clouds that dotted his vision. No he could not imagine why he would need to move anytime soon.

Josiah, easily supporting half of Buck's weight, shuffled and limped their way over the gambler. Despite calling his name repeatedly they received no vocal answer or movement.

The two men sidled up next to the inert body and leaned into his field of vision.

Ezra blinked. One moment blue skies held his attention and next Buck and Josiah disembodied faces floated over him. He smiled pleasantly, "Mr. Sanchez....Mr. Wilmington," Except the words had lost their articulation. A fuzziness or befuddlement seemed to mottle the greeting.

Buck and Josiah stared at each other raised their eyebrows and then stared back down at their fallen comrade.

"Brother are you alright?"

Ezra considered the question and realized though a gentleman should never complain he found the truth in this particular instance might be beneficial for himself, "I'm not quite sure....something should hurt...but...." He blinked slowly trying to articulate the strange adrenaline induced detachment he felt. His words had a carefree uncaring tone about them, almost whimsical.

Buck and Josiah took in the fresh scrapes and cuts. They noticed the large flayed sections of shoulder that held ingrained dirt, sticks and other assorted plant life. They saw the torn pants leg and the pebbled peeled burns that raked the rib cage.

Buck let out a low whistle. Josiah checked over his shoulder to gauge how close Nathan and his medical supply were at the moment. A little laudanum would go along way right about now.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Nathan hauled their horses to a sliding stop from a dead run. The healer beat Larabee to the ground. Jackson had his bag in hand and at Mrs. Travis's side before the gunslinger got his foot from the stirrup.

Larabee had taken a half step toward JD and the others when he noticed Tanner still sat slumped in his saddle. The gunslinger turned toward the tracker a question on his lips. Tanner smiled reassuringly right before he toppled from the saddle.

"Damn it Vin," Though the name was spoken softly the urgency carried.

Jackson snapped his head up just in time to see the tracker curl in the saddle and crash to the ground. Figures

"Geezus Vin," Larabee ducked under Peso's head holding briefly to the loose reins. Chris rounded the shoulder and knelt beside Tanner.

"I'm fine," Labored breath separated the forced words. Blue eyes were squeezed shut and arms wrapped tightly around their midsection.

Larabee raised his eyebrows in obvious disbelief.

"Jist a bit dizzy," Tanner huffed out between gasps. He bowed his head to his chest.

"That all?" The 'I ain't buyin' yer bull,' tone came across very clearly.

"Fer now," Vin's wheezing reply held enough warning to imply he did not deem himself ready for doctoring.

"Damn you Tanner,"

"Every day," Vin offered a weak smile and added, "check on the others...saw Ezra do his JD impression over that dang wagon..ain't seen 'im git up though...Buck too. Went down right after..."

Chris understood Tanner's meaning. Vin stilled breathed and moved therefore he was a alive. The other two were unaccounted for at the moment. Chris's eyes fell to Mary. She was sitting up speaking softly to JD. For a brief moment their eyes met. The News Paper owner flashed Larabee a smile. She survived her plight.

His return smile held no humor or levity. What of the others?

Larabee looked up and surveyed the area from the one kneel stance he held at Tanner's side. The Gunslinger spotted his missing men a few yards from him. Buck managed to gain his feet but leaned heavily on Josiah. The two were staring at Standish who lay on the ground as if he were something of a puzzle.

Chris groaned and shook his head. Now what. He pushed himself to his feet circumvented the overturned wagon and made his way to the rest of his men.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah assessed the situation and came up with a plan. There hardly seemed a place on the gambler they could touch. On top of that, muscles fasciculated even as Ezra lay still.

"I've got a plan brother," Josiah stood straighter proud of his idea.

Buck eyed him suspiciously. Sanchez never had any good plans. Though occasionally he did fall into a few helpful distractions...with a little help from some whiskey.

The preacher read the doubt in Wilmington's eyes and scowled slightly. They would never let him live down the Guy Royal incident. Sanchez shook his head erasing such thoughts. He would just impress them with his solution, "We need to get our brother here up off the ground and over to the wagon."

Buck rolled his eyes, "That all?"

Standish blinked up at the two men and groaned, "Good Lord I'm surrounded by mental giants," The gambler tried to push himself up. Arms trembled and shoulders quivered before giving out. He settled heavily back into the dirt and stiff ground cover.

Josiah sighed, closed his eyes and tilted his head to the side, Heathens...ungrateful heathens

"Well Brother Ezra, I planned on helping you to your feet, but I could just drag your sorry ass over there by your arms," Sanchez squatted down and grabbed Standish by his wrist.

"No...No...wait," Green blood shot eyes widened in panic. Alternatives and deals slugged their way through an exhausted half aware mind.

The preacher flashed a grin as he marked Larabee's authoritative step. At least Chris was someone who could really offer assistance.

Chris strolled up beside Buck and grabbed the Ladies' Man upper arm before Wilmington slid to the ground. "You boys alright over....." his words tapered off when he laid eyes on Standish's debris embedded sunburn. The gunslinger let loose with a low whistle. Man is going to be an unbearable nuisance....damn that's gotta hurt

"Hey Ezra," Larabee gazed down at the gambler. A small smile twitched on the gunfighters face, "good job....never would have thought to trap them with the wagon." Chris chuckled and turned to Josiah ignoring the Southerner.

Standish squinted his eyes not sure if the ringing in his ears truly picked up the sarcasm.

"Josiah you got this handled?" Larabee did not bother waiting for a reply. Instead he steered his oldest friend away from the impending confrontation that was sure to ensue.

Josiah watched them go, "Cowards," He turned his attention back to the Southerner who struggled gamely to sit up again. He nearly made it to his elbows. Sanchez sighed and squatted down and gently tried to wipe loose pebbles from the dry but bleeding sunburns on Standish's back. One wipe was all he managed before a foul string of deep southerner laced curses rent the area.

Buck and Chris's chuckles rolled over their back trail.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner leaned quietly against the up right wagon wheel. He kept his freshly bandaged ribs held tightly with in the grasp of his protected arm. The gash on the corner of his forehead had been scrubbed and cleaned. He took his treatment in silent anguish. Nathan seemed to use a little more vigor than normal.

The tracker kept a wary eye on the cardsharp beside him. Standish looked like hell. Wretched....A word he had heard on more than a few occasions and a word that Ezra himself had once defined for the tracker. A lot of pictures had come to Tanner's mind about the word, but for the first time Vin really got a sense of what it meant. Ezra looked wretched.

When Standish hurt he normally dragged someone down with him.

Tanner kept his guard up.

Beside Ezra and leaning against an upright saddle sat Wilmington. Buck's injured leg rested on Ezra's side. The Ladies' man kept his hands clasped across his midsection instead of near his leg.

Vin could not help but think that was a very bad idea. Of all people, Buck should know better.

Wilmington leaned back against the folds of the saddle with his eyes closed. Nathan had changed the bandages and cleansed the wound yet again. Though Laudanum laced his system it seemingly did nothing to deaden the agony of a good vigorous scrubbing.

Tanner had begun to suspect that maybe Nathan was trying to teach them a lesson about getting into trouble.

JD sat at the rear tire. The young sheriff had his eyes closed too. Though it was hard to differentiate when the poor kids eyes were actually open or not at any given time. His hat rested on the top of his head. The kid had a hell of a headache that curled his toes and rolled his stomach. On top of that a low grade fever kept him out of sorts and dragged on his normal exuberance.

Tanner eyed JD. The kid did well. Held up better than most and still had enough in him to ensure everyone else was safe. JD was a damn good of the best.

The endless walking tied to the wagon, the relentless summer heat, the lack of water, and the abuse wrought on them at the hands of their captors had finally taken their toll. The three men sat exhausted, bone weary and just wanted to get home.

Vin leaned back against the wheel and briefly closed his eyes. Nathan and Josiah readied the wagon for the trip back. Chris checked the mules over and their gear. He also wrangled in all the horses. Chaucer gave the gunslinger an unruly time. The big chestnut gelding took to chasing the young Bay away from the herd. Vin couldn't help but think that Ezra's proud horse was a tad bit jealous.

Tanner cracked an eye because he sensed the movement. "Don't even try it Ezra." Though Standish appeared wasted from the last few days...and exhaustion had waifed off him like humidity, Standish still found enough reserves buried deep down inside to create trouble. Vin almost marveled at the innate ability...when it was not directed at himself.

"Try what Mr. Tanner?" Irritability and discomfort dripped from every word. The gambler shifted positions again trying to find a something to lean against that did not involve his torso. Fatigue started by the fever a week ago and exacerbated by the last few days dissolved any endurance muscles might have sustained. On top of that, Jackson's unsolicited attention to the numerous lacerations stripped the gambler of the last of his strength.

Vin had cringed when Nathan had been forced to dig debris out of Standish's numerous cuts. Jackson scratched at the wounds with his fingernail scraping out dirt and small rocks. Ezra had twisted and arched and made promises to abstain from drinking, gambling, hell even start going to Church....if Nathan would just stop his minerstatrations.

Vin had chuckled....He didn't think Ezra had ever seen the inside of a church during services unless he thought he could get his hands on the collection. Or playing the part of Preacher.

Yup Nathan was sure trying to teach them to stay out of trouble.

It was with a great sense of self preservation that Tanner kept a watchful eye on Standish who now sat beside him. Vin narrowed his eyes at the retreating hand. Damn fool was gonna start something already.

"Don't play dumb Ezra," Buck chortled out. Wilmington refused to open his eyes, a headache still sat just behind his forehead.

"Ain't too hard for him to pull off ya know," JD whispered out trying very hard not to move his battered jaw.

"As if you could differentiate between feigning and the real thing," Standish returned to no one in particular but Vin suspected it was aimed at Buck.

Wilmington returned it by raising a hand to poke at a sunburned shoulder. Though Ezra's seared skin lay hidden beneath one of Nathan's cotton shirts, turned inside out...the seams scoured heavily against sensitive skin. There was not an inch of his torso not marred. Well perhaps the upper underside of his arms and opposing lateral chest area where the upper arms rested.

In fear of the proposed onslaught, Standish bent a leg and raised the heel slightly off the ground prepared to kick the injured thigh. His leg shook with the effort, but he appeared determined.

Nathan and Josiah watched from the back of the wagon. Sanchez shook his head. The two of them were no better than the Scorpion and the Toad. Unfortunately Wilmington and Standish switched their roles repeatedly. Neither one an angel or an innocent.

Tanner watched thankful Buck garnered the attention of the gambler.

"'Ey Ezra that sunburn hurtin' ya?" Buck inched his index finger a few inches closer to the injured shoulder. "No offense there pard' but yer tender white skin aint' made for being in the sun," Wilmington's chuckle brought smiles to Vin and JD.

Both Tracker and Sheriff knew Buck could not help more than Ezra could. Those two would irritate a humming bird into silence.

Standish raised his heel slightly, "Thank you Mr. Wilmington, for that insightful observation," Sarcasm heavily laced the words. There was a pause and Vin could imagine the devious wheels turning in Standish's mind. The Southern drawl continued, "So tell me Mr. Wilmington the leg still tender?"

"Not as tender as your shoulder," Buck managed to twist the statement into a warning and a challenge at the same time.

As if on cue, the two lunged at one another. An almost involuntary action neither one could really control or resist.

Buck's hand slapped the burned shoulder just as Standish's heel nudged the knife wound.

Both men yelped rolling away from one another.

Standish pushed himself into Tanner. The tracker unable to skitter away took the full brunt of the jostling body. Ribs burned furiously in protest.

Buck nearly bolted to his feet but his legs gave out and he crashed into Dunne.

Howls filled the air. Promises of painful deaths and violent revenge rained from the Eastern side of the covered wagon like a spring monsoon.

Nathan and Josiah ignored the litany of foul language and crude gestures and continued to work in the wagon. The canvas had been placed over the metal rungs to keep the sun off of Standish.

Buck would be riding with him in the wagon as would Vin. It seemed hell had found its place on earth.

Mary sat on the Western side of the wagon listening with a grimace. She held a cloth to her head and wondered what made these men so formidable. She cringed at the abusive language and marveled at how well Vin managed to manipulate the English language. His reading lessons apparently were paying off.

Nathan peeked his head out over the side of the wagon and stared down at Mrs. Travis, "You doin' ok ma'am?"

Mary chuckled and tilted her head back, "Just fine Mr. Jackson,"

"They bothering ya ma'am?"

Mrs. Travis knew Nathan referred to the colorful use of superlatives on the other side. She could hear the slapping and shoving of bodies. They were hell on each other, forget any outlaws. If someone truly wanted to defeat the seven they only had to injure one or two of them and then lock the group in a small room together for a few minutes. They were sure to kill each other.

"No not really....though I think Vin's vocabulary has improved some," She smiled pleased with the apparent success of her lesson.

"Yes ma'am I think he's learning real well," Jackson withdrew back inside the wagon.


Comments to: